Monday, August 27, 2012

The Good News About Giving Bad News

I was given two rounds of bad news last week.  In one situation, the bad news was delivered appropriately, and the situation ended quite well.  In the other, well, the way the message was relayed made the bad news even worse.  With it being a “bad news week,” I had the chance to really reflect on the finesse necessary when delivering bad news.  In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the degree in which news is perceived as good or bad is often directly correlated to how the message is relayed.  Needless to say, that has major implications for any “people person” position, and education is no exception.

Whether teacher, building leader, or district administrator, we’ve all had the opportunity to be on both the receiving and supplying ends of bad news.  As receivers, there is only so much we can do.  If we have a good enough outlook, and the bad news is not catastrophic, we often validate its impact on the world around us, and set to work dealing with it.  But, as deliverers, we have much more say in the matter.  In these instances, we often have to deal with both the news, and the fallback from delivering it.  But, with that added weight also comes decision-making power on how we choose to relay that information.  And, as contrary as it might sound, there are good ways to deliver bad news, and in fact, from a community and collaboration standpoint, bad news can actually be quite good.

So, how do you deliver bad news well?  Here are three rules to never forget:
  1. Deliver bad news early and often.  Chances are, delivering bad news isn’t on the top of any leader’s “To Do” list.  It often gets put off as long as possible, so we can focus on the items that bring joy to people, rather than pain.  But, waiting can be problematic.  Aside from any initial waiting necessary to collect fact-based information, bad news should be delivered as soon as it is complete, and as often as updates are available.  While this sounds like bad news overload, the opposite is even worse.  If you've ever been in a situation where people discovered bad news before you had the chance to deliver it, you know how off-putting it can be.  It can cause lack of trust and respect, rather than putting the focus on moving forward.  In short, it presents additional hurdles that deliverers and receivers of news have to negotiate.  It literally makes everyone’s life more difficult.  So, share information as soon as you can.  Inform receivers that more information will be coming, and though it might be tough to handle, it is important to you that everyone is kept in the loop.  This builds capacity, and solidifies a team that you’ll need to help you address the crisis.
  2.  If you must delegate a deliverer, make the message incorruptible.  The challenge with bad news is that everybody hears it differently.  So, if you can’t deliver the news and have to delegate a messenger (never ideal, but as we all know, it does happen), make sure the messenger knows the ins-and-outs of the news, and that you've briefed that person on potential questions coming from receivers.  The worst result of delegation happens when a message is delivered that is wrong, or a question is asked that is answered incorrectly.  It’s never fun for the messenger to go back and correct his/her mistake, and it is never pleasant to have to undo damage a messenger may have made that likely resulted from your inability to get the message across correctly.  So, deliver all bad news yourself.  If you can’t, delegate effectively, and know your audience.
  3.  Finally, empathize, encourage, and embark.  At times, bad news is taken well.  At others, time stops.  As a deliverer, you must first empathize with your audience.  Allow receivers to cry, vent, be alone, etc. with the understanding that you are a shoulder if needed.  Next, encourage your receivers to reflect on the news and let them know that you will work to help them deal and move on, and will provide support, leadership, and understanding.  Never take responses from bad news as personal, and be active without being reactive.  Finally, embark on a journey to turn the bad news into something good.  Use the news to help solidify the community and move forward.  Constantly discuss where you’re going as opposed to where you've been.
These three rules aren't the only considerations that should be made when delivering bad news, but they are the three that I have found to be essential when I’m tasked with being a deliverer.  I've found that if nothing else, rule #1 is the trump card.  As upsetting as bad news is, when information is shared regularly and often, you've already built capacity as a leader focused on the community-at-large, and as we know, the only way to truly grow from bad news is to have family, friends, and colleagues working together and supporting each other.

I hope that the start of your school year is only filled with great news!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ready, Set Goals!

The school year is beginning for many within a few days, and with it comes the excitement and anxiety of a new year and all its possibilities.  For many of us in education, we spend countless hours considering the goals of our charges (whether they be students, teachers, community members, etc.), and much less time really thinking about our own personal goals.  In fact, I would be willing to wager that for most of us, our own personal goal creation is fairly pitiful when compared to the goals we create or collaborate on with others. It’s not that we don’t want to further our own knowledge (heck, we’re born learners, after all), it is just that deep introspection takes lots of time, and in education, time is a commodity that is never in large enough supply.

Happily, I’m here to be your goal setting conscience.  Since the school year never seems to slowly rev up, but rather always starts at full throttle, here are a few goal-setting rules to consider while you’re still at “coasting” speed. 

1.  Plan with parsimony.  Ever heard of “Occam’s Razor?”  In science, it is the idea that barring any reason not to, one should always consider the simplest hypothesis before those of a more complex nature.  Why?  “Simply” (sorry, couldn’t resist) because the greater the complexity, the greater the room for error and competing variables, all of which will make it tougher to tell whether the hypothesis has been verified or not.  The same can be said for goal creation.  Goals, whether personal or for stakeholders, should be simple enough for all to understand with no bias or room for misinterpretation.  Considering how busy everyone’s lives are these days, goals must also be simple to pursue.  Keep in mind that just because a goal is simple to understand and get started on, it need not be simple to achieve.  Challenge is good.  Goals that are too simple really aren’t goals.  Some food for thought: If the creation of a goal takes longer than meeting the goal itself, than it isn’t a goal worth creating or achieving.

2.  Get time on your side.  Goals require a finite time span.  In reality, time spans for goal completion should be mid-range in nature, providing for enough time to devise goal-meeting strategy and adequate reflection, but not so long that time lapse causes the goal to get buried by other initiatives or antiquated by the nature of today’s fast-paced world.  So, a two-week goal?  Likely too short a time period.  A three-year goal?  Not short enough.  In fact, I would be willing to argue with anyone interested (I love a good debate) that a “one-year goal” is actually too long.  Rather, goals can be appropriately timed by the structure of your building or district’s terms.  Quarterly or semester-based goals are appropriate, whether they are your goals, your students, or your teachers.

3.  Try triads.  Goals can be stressful.  Whether building benchmarks for yourself or for others, reaching new heights is anxiety producing.  The more goals set, the higher the inherent anxiety, and the more likely some will fall by the wayside.  Of course, if only one goal is set, it leaves little room for flexibility in goal achievement and can stifle collaboration and strength/weakness pairing.  The human mind is an incredible tool, and it seems to work quite well with ideas grouped in threes.  So, keep your goals to a triad to provide just the right amount of flexible thinking opportunities and positive stressors.

4.  A final important rule is don’t set goals for others unless you plan to have a few set for yourself.  So, without further ado, here are my professional goals for the next three months (I’ll look to report back by the end of November and let you know where I stand. . .remember, goal reporting and discussing is always key):

  • Explore and then implement one new technology tool.  I’m currently looking at Socrative (a handy-student response tool that works with “any” device; and some handy Twitter SAP tools (  I’ll look into them in more detail and then try one of them out with the students or teachers I work with.  If those tools don’t pan out, I’ll increase the social media exposure of the science program I work with by creating a Facebook page (our Twitter feed has been quite successful).
  • Design and facilitate one new science education workshop.  We always like to provide teachers with new offerings, and I’m looking to run a session on life science content for elementary science teachers and/or Next Generation Science Standard characteristics that teachers can begin implementing now (even while the document is in “draft” form).
  • Complete our first grade audio book portfolio.  I’m in the process of developing and recording audio books for our younger elementary curriculum.  I’ve finished the kindergarten selections but haven’t been successful in keeping up with this project for first grade.  Time to make it happen.

It is always helpful to have a “critical friend” handy who can look over your goals and discuss where you stand at the end of your time frame.  My wife is an educator and is an excellent educational sounding board.  In addition, my current supervisor has been an excellent source of encouragement and critical feedback.

As you ramp up from 0-60 (or 0-97 for our metric colleagues) in the next few days, make sure you’ve had the chance to put a few personal goals in place.  That way, when the year ends in a few short months (and next summer will be here before you know it), you’ll be able to look back at not just another year going by, but just how much you’ve accomplished for yourself and your stakeholders.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Practice Makes Permanent

Earlier this week I was engaged in a spirited discussion with a colleague on the topic of science education.  As with any discussion where both parties feel particularly invested in the topic at hand, the conversation included many examples, theories, and conjectures.  At one point in the conversation, this colleague said, “You know, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.”  We were clearly both surprised with the profound nature of that statement, as the conversation literally stopped at that point for us to consider the immensity of what was said.  I’m still considering it today as I write this post.

No one would argue that practice has an impact on what we do.  Whether learning to drive, cook, or engage in a sporting event (my wife and daughter are catching up on Olympic results as I type), constant repetition trains the body, mind, and spirit to make certain actions effortless.  Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “10,000 Hour Rule” in his book, Outliers.  The idea here is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly become an “expert.”  While Gladwell was focusing on those folks in society who are truly “world-class elite performers,” many would agree that a large time investment is necessary to train ourselves to accomplish key tasks. 

What’s interesting here is that this idea focuses on just how helpful constant repetition is.  But, what is missing is that practice doesn’t always lead to a positive result.  For instance, prior to making that profound statement, my colleague was explaining how he taught himself to play a number of musical instruments, including the flute.  He practiced constantly and at one point, was invited to attend a recital conference with some of the best flutists in the world.  Upon arriving he was about to play a piece with a number of others in attendance.  As they warmed up, he could not believe how much better they sounded than he did.  Though his hours of practice did make him an “expert,” they had made him an expert in playing the flute incorrectly.  In fact, he stated that unlearning errors in musical instrument play was much harder than initially learning how to play them.

We see the same thing in sports (that baseball star who is an excellent fielder, but can’t seem to unlearn his poor swing structure), conversation (adding in hundreds of “ums” and “likes” as we speak), and even writing (I can’t tell you how many times I write “occasion” as “occassion”).  In all these instances, practice does make us perfect, but perfect at doing the wrong thing.  So, inherently, practice doesn’t always achieve something good.

The key, of course, is practicing “correctly.”  And, as leaders, we must encourage both our students, and our colleagues, to not only build their skills through repetition, but to also be cognizant of the fact that just because you keep doing something, doesn’t mean what you end up with will be “right.”  

Beginning to make a move towards achieving this can be challenging, but there are a number of steps we can take to make this a more effective process for everyone:

Open Their Eyes.  Discuss with others that practice, by itself, isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Encourage Metacognitive Thinking.  When my colleague realized that he was the least prepared of the “exceptional” flutists, he had an epiphany.  These epiphanies must be made by others as well if they are to truly understand that we must practice correctly.  We can engage in a wrong process one thousand times and it will still be wrong.

Provide Support.  Nothing is worse than realizing that something you thought you did so well is something that you do so incorrectly (particularly if hours upon hours were spent getting to that point).  Provide colleagues and students the resources they need to break the cycle, and most importantly, help them “unlearn” what needs to be changed in whatever way you can. 

Share Successes and Failures.  We’ve all been there.  Talk about it, and listen to others.

Develop a Practice Protocol.  Schools can devise methods that will lead practice to truly be perfect.  These methods require three key parts. 
  • First, mentors and experts must be on hand (or readily available) who can help correct errors as they arise.
  • Second, constant opportunities for sharing and feedback need to be provided.  Even the seasoned expert can miss something from time-to-time.  Discussions and feedback sessions allow even the most hidden errors to be flushed out. 
  •  Finally, time must be scheduled for stakeholders to practice.  Teachers and students are beyond overscheduled these days.  Expertise requires time to develop.  If we expect our colleagues and students to develop in a manner that allows them to truly become pillars of expertise, the opportunity needs to be provided for those pillars to be built.

It is a lofty goal to strive for correctness in all content and processes internalized.  But, it doesn’t have to be an entirely impossible one.  We know that practice does lead to better retention.  Now we just have to make sure that what becomes permanent really is productive.